NFL Film Breakdown: How the Chicago Bears Defense Confuses QBs into Making Mistakes and Taking Sacks

The Bears defense is alive and well. Akiem Hicks is back and disrupting plays with 13 QB hits and 5 tackles for loss, Khalil Mack has 5.5 sacks on the season, Eddie Jackson is one of the best safeties in the league, and Kyle Fuller is allowing just a 51.5% completion percent. To have a truly elite defense, you need to have a secondary and front that work together. The Bears like to move their secondary players around at the snap to force quarterbacks to diagnose things on the fly and adjust in real time. It can cause them to make poor decisions or hold the ball for a half second longer to allow the Bears pass rush to get home. It sounds simple but being static can often be a death sentence for defenses. If you don’t give teams something to think about at the snap, you’re conceding that it’s going to be your guys versus theirs. Moving your pieces around gives the advantage back to the defenses and is part of the reason why Chicago has allowed just 58.7% of passes to be completed this season.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

The Bears are predominantly a one high safety team and play a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 1. They’ll often show two high safeties though because they want to force quarterbacks to process and figure out what’s going on post-snap. At the snap of the ball or leading up to the snap, they’ll rotate their safeties to change their pre-snap look. Often, this leads them to running Cover 1 Robber. Cover 1 just means that there is one high safety and man coverage everywhere else on the field. Robber is describing the action of the other safety because he is going to drop down at the snap and “rob” the middle of the field. This Robber player is free to jump any routes that flash in front of him. Cover 1 Robber can be used to prevent slants, quick hitting hooks underneath, or crossing routes. Here, the Giants are running a common play which is a chains concept where the receivers get to the first down marker and turn around for the ball. The Bears are running their Cover 1 Robber to the trips side so that they can help Roquan Smith in coverage. Smith knows that there’s a robber behind him so he can now bracket to the inside of the tight end. The corner to the top of the screen also knows he can play with outside leverage and funnel inside because the Robber will be there to pick up any crossers. The Robber frees up other players to play with more conservative leverage and funnel things inside to both the free safety over the top and the robber over the middle. Daniel Jones here is reading that Roquan smith is way inside on his tight end, so he’s determining pre-snap that’s the route that he wants. The tight end is going to turn around right at the sticks and with two safeties over the top and with leverage on the linebacker, it should be an easy completion. What Jones doesn’t see though, is Eddie Jackson dropping down to rob the route. Jackson knows the routes are coming based on down and distance and keys off of Jones’ eyes. He breaks on the route and causes the ball to pop up into the air.

You can see in this play how Cover 1 Robber looks when coming down on a crossing route. The Bears show two high before the late rotate back to centerfield by Tashaun Gipson and the Robber, Eddie Jackson, sits right in the middle of the field waiting for a an in-breaking route to rob. The Lions are running a dig route across the middle of the field and Eddie Jackson is sitting in the deep hole ready to break on it. Stafford doesn’t see it, and Jackson is able to break on it and pop the ball into the air again for an interception.

Really this robber look is just designed to cause hesitation on routes in the middle of the field, set the safety up with angles to make a play on the ball, or force the offense to make throws outside where the Bears are getting great play out of their corners Kyle Fuller and their rookie Jaylon Johnson.

For example, here the Falcons use pre-snap motion to try and diagnose what the Bears are doing. When the receiver shifts over and the corner comes with him, that’s a man coverage indicator. You pair that with two high safeties, and you expect to see 2 Man Under which gives the defense two deep players in each half of the field and man coverage underneath. So, if you’re Matt Ryan, what’s a route that you love here? The Falcons are running two crossers behind each other across the field. Based on leverage and having a shallow drag route to the top of the screen, he’s going to want to hit the first crosser because that receiver has inside leverage on the slot defender. The shallow by the tight end at the top will pull the defender to that side, and he sees the boundary side safety getting depth on the snap. What he doesn’t expect is for Eddie Jackson to again be in that Robber look coming down from the four-receiver side. Jackson comes down right in front of that crosser which is where Ryan is looking first. Ryan sees that the crosser is bracketed but by that time is feeling pressure. He has to come off the read, and throws short for an incompletion.  

Similar to Cover 1 Robber, the Bears also use jump calls against teams that like to run a lot of crossers like the Rams in Week 7. The Rams run a ton of tight formations and drag their receivers across on deep over routes in their play-action game. The Bears’ method of combatting that was to use Jump calls. A Jump call is very similar to using a Robber, but it takes a little more communication and understanding from the defense. With a Jump call, the safety is coming down on the crossing route and the corner that was initially over that route replaces them in the middle of the field instead of chasing them across. The Bears use this coverage on the single receiver side of the formation so that that corner isn’t going to be immediately threatened in their half of the field when they vacate it. For the purposes of this play, the slice behind the formation by the receiver in the slot turns this into a single receiver side to the bottom of the screen after the snap of the ball. This Jump call allows the Bears to keep the integrity of their defense and bypass traffic in the middle of the field while picking up crossers from the safety position with an angle to make the tackle or a play on the ball.

So, the Bears run a lot of the Cover 1 Robber, typically with the Robber coming from the trips side and they’ll also use those Jump calls. They’ll also invert that and show a one-high safety look and then bail out of it into Cover 2 Trap, also called Palms. Palms is popular against spread formations and two receiver sets which is what we have here against the Panthers. It’s essentially Cover 2 with match coverage principles tied into it. The corners on the outside are keying the #2 receivers on the inside. If they have an outbreaking route, they’re going to carry the #1 until they see it and then drop to jump the out route by #2. If that’s the case, the safety over the top would then pick up #1 as they go vertical. The linebackers then help to bracket any in breaking crossers like a dig or slant.

That’s what the Bears are running here. The problem that Teddy Bridgewater and the Panthers have is that Chicago is showing single high which either means Cover 1 or Cover 3. In either case, Teddy likes the matchups and leverage of his routes to the top of the screen. The #1 goes vertical, the #2 runs a wheel right behind it, and the running back runs an arrow out into the flats. In the Bears Palms coverage, the corner is going to pass off that vertical to the safety coming over the top and jump the outbreaking route from the #2. He then carries that wheel up the sideline since he is now in man coverage on that route. The slot defender is bracketing but has no in breakers, so he runs with the running back to the flats. Everything is covered. Normally, though, in a Cover 3 or in man, that initial vertical would pull the corner deep. The #2 running the wheel route would be carried by the slot defender who would normally have the flats in cover 3 and now there would be no flat defender to pick up that running back since that defender carried the wheel. In Cover 1, you’d be one-on-one with your running back on a linebacker in man. All matchups you’d probably like. So, Teddy looks that way off the snap but then sees the Bears are rotating into that Cover 2 look with two high safeties and the safety getting over the top of the vertical from #1. He knows that that side of the field is going to be covered and tries to get back over to the bottom of the screen.  By then, though, the corner has broken on the slant from Robby Anderson, Teddy has to move out of the pocket, and the Bears close in for a sack. It’s the perfect marriage of coverage and pressure and is what makes these rotates and post-snap movements so effective for defenses. One second of pause from the QB and all the sudden your pass rush can get home for a big play to put the Panthers on their own one yard line.

Here’s another example of Cover 2 at the bottom of the screen with the Bears again giving a late rotate into the two high safety look. The corner is again keying the #2 receiver for an out-breaking route and leaving any crosser or vertical route for the safety or the linebacker. The corner takes the quick out and the linebacker now brackets and gets inside of the post from the #1. Bridgewater knows the Bears like to have their robber to the trips side and the Bears had run a single high look with man coverage earlier in this game against the Panthers’ empty formations so that’s exactly what Bridgewater is looking for here.

The Bears instead rotate the middle field safety over and drop Eddie Jackson into the deep seem to the trips side. Normally, offenses will have reads versus defenses when they’re showing middle of the field open with two high safeties versus middle of the field closed versus one high safety. In this case, DJ Moore has an option route of running a dig versus 1 high or a post versus a 2-high look. You want to attack the weakness of the defense. Because of the strong rush and the late rotate, Teddy still thinks it’s a 1 high look and either man or Cover 3 so he’s expecting a dig from DJ Moore. Meanwhile, Moore is seeing the rotate by the safety and breaks for a post to exploit that vacated middle of the field – which really is wide open if Teddy throws the ball down the field. There’s absolutely nobody there. But because he doesn’t see the rotate and the rush is getting home, he throws the dig right into the linebacker who has bracketed the in-breaking route. It’s an interception that ultimately seals the game and prevents the Panthers from continuing their potential game tying drive.

The Bears are sitting at 5-2 and are right in the mix of the NFC playoff picture. Their defense is getting to the quarterback, locking down receivers, and confusing quarterbacks into holding the ball and making mistakes. With the marriage of an elite secondary and a defensive line that can cause pressure, the Bears have all the pieces to the puzzle on defense. The offense might have its ups and downs but as the old saying goes and as Bears fans are hoping is true – defense win championships.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: Mike Gesicki Could be Miami’s Secret Weapon

After a lackluster rookie season where Mike Gesicki had only 22 receptions for 202 yards, his sophomore year saw him earn the second most targets on the team with 89 and more than double his yardage total with 570 yards and 5 touchdowns. He showed progress in his route running and started to become a more physical receiver and was the 4th best TE at winning contested catches. While he is listed as a tight end, Gesicki is really just a big slot – one of the positions that more and more teams are adding to their arsenal. He can be impactful there but it does limit his versatility in the offense. Things may change with Chan Gailey as their new offensive coordinator, but in 2019 the Dolphins ran pass plays on 80% of the snaps where Gesicki was in. In part because he’s a good pure receiver and in part because he was absolutely atrocious at blocking.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Gesicki shows flashes of good route running and when he can get up to speed, he’s hard to keep up with as he does well on speed cuts and routes that don’t require starting and stopping or huge change of direction. He can consistently torch linebackers in man but at times he struggled to out-physical smaller defensive backs when they covered him. His straight-line speed is impressive for guy as big as he is and as he works more release techniques and route nuance into his game, he’s going to be tough to stop. Even this little stutter go where gives a small jab to the inside like he’s running a slant can be enough to give him separation on linebackers

Through the season he showed a slow improvement at manipulating the leverage of defenders and working up onto their toes and then exploiting that leverage to get himself open. He gives some quick foot fire to hold defenders and is able to accelerate, lean and cut to the outside and create separation.

This foot fire stutter mid route once he gets onto defenders’ toes is one of his best moves. It holds the defender and stops their feet while still allowing him to accelerate and use his straight-line speed. Here he even gives a head and shoulder nod which helps sell the slant and opens him up vertically.

If you’re flat footed or guess wrong as he gets to the top of his route he’s too big and fast to slow down and he will 100% run right by you.

He also uses that speed to help him to stack defenders when they don’t get their hands on him and try to run with him. Stacking means that you’re getting directly on top of the defender in coverage. You’re stacking on top and getting back on the line on which you originally started. This gives you a two way go at the top of the route and the defender is in a terrible position and often has to guess on your break. He does that here against the Eagles where he’s taking a wide inside release to avoid the jam and then working to stack back on top as he cuts to the corner. This gives him leverage for any ball over the top and allows a bigger window for the quarterback because the defender is in trail position and can’t look back for the ball.

The problem is, he struggles with starting and stopping. So, on most of his routes he’ll round into his cuts and use a speed cut technique to get to his landmark. It keeps him running full speed and doesn’t make him break down and then speed back up. Especially against smaller or less athletic defenders, his speed cut is really effective and he can eat guys alive.

Since he struggles to start and stop, a lot of defenses started to jam and re-route him at any opportunity whether he was inline or split out and he was pretty awful at defeating it. He had really poor hand usage when defenders would attempt to jam and re-route him. Often, he ran right into the contact and when he gets slowed down, it’s hard for him to start back up.

It really is tough to watch sometimes. For being such a big guy and for managing to win so many contested catches, he really is not physical in his route running. When he can get clean releases, he’s fine, but when teams bump and run with him he starts to really struggle.

He really gets slowed down and without being able to threaten with his straight-line speed or speed cuts, he doesn’t get much separation.

Because he isn’t overly physical, he can also have some issues matching up with corners. They’re fast enough to keep up with him and if he isn’t going to overpower them, then he loses his advantage outside of being able to win a jump ball with his large frame.

That being said, he is one of the best contested catch tight ends in the league. If you give him a 50/50 ball when he is covered or fighting for position, more often than not, he’s going to catch it. And that’s the power of having a guy with his speed and frame on the field. Sometimes even when he’s not open, he’s open.

While winning contested catches is great, the lack of physicality really becomes an issue with blocking. His straight-line speed would be amazing on deep shots for play-action. The problem is… he can’t block. So, he can’t sell that he’s in to block and keep the defense honest. As mentioned before, the Dolphins passed 80% of the time when he was in the game. And when they did ask him to block, it didn’t go well. He plays with poor pad level, doesn’t drive his feet, and gets blown off the ball – especially when he’s playing in-line with his hand on the ground.

Even with corners he can have trouble because he’ll take poor angles to the block or be unable to sustain long enough.

He can have a tendency to lunge at defenders and as mentioned before, that lack of foot movement and quickness gets him in trouble when he’s trying to block just as it can in starting and stopping on his routes.

A sort of perfect encapsulation of him as an athlete is here where he runs right by the defensive back and wins on the route with a quick outside stem. It’s a walk-in touchdown if he gets the ball. As a result, though, he’s downfield for what would be a scoring block… and completely misplays it and allows the one defender that could make the tackle to make the tackle without Gesicki even touching him.

There are bits and pieces of his game that you look at and you think “this guy might be really good” he started to show more nuanced route running and releases like pulling his shoulder to avoid those jams that can give him trouble.

The Eagles and Jets respected him enough to line up Jamal Adams and Malcolm Jenkins on him through the bulk of their games and Gesicki was able to win some routes on them – especially when they gave him cushion to protect against his speed.

Mike Gesicki has all the tools to be a great receiving tight end in the league. Even if the blocking never truly gets there, he has eerily similar combine stats and measurables as Jimmy Graham and he did just fine for years and was a huge weapon in New Orleans and early on in Seattle. What’s exciting is his growth as a route runner and seeing him start to put together indications of physicality. The contested catches are the start. Using his body to create leverage and being more physical in his routes is the next step. Balance and consistency are what he needs and if Tua is down to give him more jump balls, the Dolphins may have a secret weapon behind DeVante Parker who can gash you over the middle, be too physical for corners, faster than linebackers, and bring some fireworks down to Miami.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

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NFL Film Breakdown: Miami’s Xavien Howard has All the Tools to be a Shutdown Corner

Xavien Howard, drafted in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, cashed in on a 5 year, 72 million dollar contract in the summer of 2019. At the time, he was coming off of a pro-bowl year where he had a league high 7 interceptions, allowed a 52.4% completion percentage, and a 61.2 QB rating. Although plagued with injuries like fellow teammate DeVante Parker, when he’s healthy, he’s a huge contributor.  While not the most physical corner, Howard is one of the best at closing on routes and reading receivers. He shows efficient footwork, sound technique, and is really good when he can play off and close on routes with vision.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

The Baltimore Sun

            The problem is the Dolphins ran a ton of man coverage with single high looks to help with their porous run defense. Howard struggles with his jam punch and he can get caught peaking in the backfield in man coverage. His excellent closure grade and poor collision ability make him incredibly susceptible to double moves. That being said, he does a good job of keeping his cushion deep and almost never gets beat over the top in zone. He can play outside or in the slot if needed and when he’s on and in the right defense he can completely eliminate a receiver or one side of the field.

            Howard’s technique when turning and running with receivers is really impressive. He is able to stay in the pocket of receivers as they cut, close the throwing window on them, and is almost always in a position to make a play on the ball or an immediate tackle. Whether he’s in man or zone coverage, he does a good job keying their eyes and hips, playing tight to their routes, and contesting catches. You can see the efficiency and fluidity in his movements as he changes direction and plants to get out of his backpedal. He has truly elite change of direction which gives him good flexibility as both a man and a zone corner.

            Howard does a good job of stacking on top of receivers and widening and washing them towards the sideline. He closes the available window for the quarterback to throw to, has the quickness to break on backshoulders, and isn’t afraid of getting beat deep. You can see the receivers start on the numbers and get washed all the way to within a yard or two of the sideline.

In man coverage he plays tight with good hand usage, and can keep up with even the fastest of guys like Marquise Brown of the Ravens. He shows good discipline not to over-run routes and shows efficient footwork on his breaks. While he tracks the hips of receivers in zone, he plays off their eyes in man which helps him to locate the ball when his back is turned.

Because of his quick closing ability and keying of eyes, this sets him up for double moves and route stems from receivers and he can get caught peaking at the QB at times even without head fakes or the set ups for double moves.

One of the first plays that Dallas ran was a double move on Howard with Amari Cooper running a slant corner. Howard also struggled with getting hands on receivers in man and giving a top tier receiver a clean release in man is asking a lot of your physical abilities. He lets Cooper release and get on his toes before breaking to the Slant. As soon as he turns his head for the slant, Howard is already beat and is looking back at the QB for the ball. A few steps into the slant stem, Cooper rounds out and back to the corner and Howard is completely lost in coverage.

The Cowboys and Cooper didn’t stop there though. Almost every route caught on Howard during the game was some form of double move. Howard’s tendency to close on routes fast was used against him throughout the game and he didn’t have an answer for it.

Double moves obviously take a little more time to develop though and to help combat this, he needs to be more physical at the line of scrimmage when walked up in man or flat zone coverage. Either he gives no jam and re-routing attempt or has an incredibly weak punch which barely influences receivers. He’s athletic enough to get away with it most of the time but to take the next step he does need to be a little more physical.

Without a jam, this lets the receiver dictate the route, doesn’t put time pressure on them, and often can get Howard in tough situations. When he lets receivers get on his toes with no contact, he’s put in a really difficult position and it’s impossible for almost anyone to cover consistently when you allow that to happen.

He is entirely capable of being physical, he’s just incredibly inconsistent. He has all the tools in his bag and just needs to fine tune the technique. He doesn’t need to be a dominating force, but he does need to make receivers uncomfortable more consistently at the line of scrimmage.

Xavien Howard has the ability to be a dominant corner in the NFL. Team are going to have to decide between throwing at him or free agent pickup Byron Jones and they’re going to have a tough time. His closure ability, route recognition, and fluidity are all elite. I think he’s a better fit as a zone corner because of his lack of physicality but he can absolutely hold his own in man coverage. Even though Howard only played in 5 games last season, he did handle Marquise Brown, Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, and Keenan Allen and held them all to just 237 yards total. As Dolphins fans can probably tell you, if he can stay healthy and fine-tune his press technique, he’s going to be worth every penny of that 72 million dollar contract and help the Dolphins ascend to the top of the AFC East.

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NFL Film Breakdown: From LA to Indy – What to Expect From the Rivers & Reich Reunion

After 15 years with the Chargers, Phillip Rivers is an Indianapolis Colt and he reunites with Frank Reich who worked with the quarterback as the offensive coordinator with the Chargers in 2014 and 2015. Rivers might not be the quarterback he was five years ago but he is certainly still capable of being a top 10 quarterback in the NFL. His deep ball and arm strength have taken a hit but for most of his career he’s relied on anticipation throws, quick rhythm passes, big receivers that allow him to place the ball accurately on backshoulders, and using his running backs in the pass game. In fact, Rivers targeted running backs 177 times and on 29.6% of passes last year in LA. In comparison, the Colts targeted running backs just 91 times or 17.7% of passes. This isn’t a one year anomaly either. Even when Reich was the OC with the Chargers in 2015, Rivers targeted running backs 25.6% of the time. The Colts rely heavily on their running backs in their dynamic run game as I previously covered but they lacked a true receiving threat out of the backfield with Nyheim Hines being their lead guy with 44 receptions for 320 yards. Part of that is due to the scheme and personnel of the Colts versus that of the Chargers, but it’s still a big disparity between the two systems and their personnel. There are a couple ways where Rivers aligns perfectly with what the Colts do but also a few of these types of misalignments. We’ll take a closer look here at what Rivers’ strengths are and how he might fit into the passing game designed by Frank Reich.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Reich definitely tailors his offenses to the personnel he has. When with Rivers in 2015, he designed a lot of short, rhythm passing that emphasized getting the ball out fast and into the hands of receivers and playmakers. This fits Rivers’ quick decision making style and his penchant for throwing to running backs. Lots of shallows, slants, hooks, and flares by the RB and TEs keep the chains moving and allowed for the Chargers best weapons like Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen, and Danny Woodhead to get the ball in their hands.

Now, 4 years later, Rivers likes to throw a lot of those same routes to a similar cast in Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Austin Ekeler. Despite interim OC Shane Steichen not having the most polished and cohesive offensive system after inheriting what Ken Whisenhunt had started during the 2019 season, Rivers was still able to find his comfort zone and rely on his most trusted receivers.

These short rhythm and anticipation throws have been what Rivers has lived off of these last couple seasons. He shows incredible touch and anticipation on deep outs, corners, curls, and backshoulders. And to be honest, he kind of has to. His ball has definitely lost some zip and seems to hang in the air for what feels like an eternity on some throws. Because he can’t push it quite as much anymore, he relies on trusting his receivers to be in the right place and often he’s starting his throwing motion before they even get to their break – something that can take years of reps to develop.

These chemistry throws might take a little while to develop with the Colts’ receivers but here he is again throwing the ball to where his receiver will be before they’ve broken out of their route. The ball is 10 yards downfield by the time the receiver even turns around. These throws are incredibly hard to defend when the quarterback and receiver are on the same page.

While River does do a great job of throwing with anticipation to outbreaking routes, he doesn’t really do it with in breaking routes or based off of defender keys and this is where he can leave plays on the field or where his diminishing arm strength can cost him. Rivers doesn’t read the linebacker in man coverage which opens up a window for the dig behind it. The receiver has leverage but he struggles to get enough on the ball to get it up and down fast enough which allows time for the safety to react for the interception.

Here instead of working from the dig to the post which is wide open after the LB doesn’t drop underneath it, he wants to immediately check down to his running back who falls on the play and ends up getting in trouble and sacked.

Here he doesn’t read the linebacker again as the dig is opening up with space in the middle zone of the field. These are throws he makes consistently and with ease to the outside, but he struggles to do the same anticipatory throws off linebackers in the intermediate passing game.

Part of the reason for this is his penchant for using running backs in the passing game. While they can be lethal and great mismatches, sometimes there is an overreliance and he skips over reads to immediately check down to his running backs.

If he doesn’t love it immediately, he goes to the checkdown. There really isn’t anything between his first and second read. It’s his rhythm throw or anticipatory throw and then immediately the checkdown to a running back or underneath route. Here he looks right at a dig coming open in zone and passes it up to throw the flat route by the running back.

Involving your running backs in the pass game isn’t the worst way to run the offense and Rivers had a career high in yards with Reich in 2015 running that very style of offense. When you can get a mismatch and you have guys like Danny Woohead, Darren Sproles, Austin Ekeler, or LaDainian Tomlinson it can make your offense go. It opens up windows for everyone else and creates yards after catch and open space opportunities with natural ball carriers in the open field. The Chargers this year largely used their running backs as immediate release options where they’re part of the initial designed play versus having them check release for blitzes or help in pass pro before releasing. When your running backs are some of your best players, it’s a great way to get them involved and Rivers does it super well with good touch and decisiveness.

You can compare that now to the very different way that the Colts used their running backs this last year. Now that may change as Rivers arrives and Reich adapts what they’re doing, but the Colts running backs were largely last resort outlets on check releases or used in the screen game. Extremely rarely would the Chargers ever keep their backs in for pass protection because of Rivers penchant for throwing to them and exploiting those mismatches on linebackers and you can see how the Colts differ by running different route types and chipping defensive ends.

They do have immediate releases in the playbook and I’d expect them to use it a lot more with Rivers. Nyheim Hines definitely seems like the guy to get it to with surprising speed but the Colts now have a pretty crowded backfield with Jonathan Taylor drafted out of Wisconsin and added to the mix of Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines.

The Colts ran a lot more intermediate passing than the Chargers did which isn’t entirely Rivers’ forte. Until they drafted Michael Pittman who physically is very similar to Mike Williams in LA – the Colts largest receiver was 6’2” Zach Pascal. The intermediate and play-action / deep game was a lot more effective with the speedier, smaller guys that the Colts have and the shorter, possession, anticipation throws fit the skills of the Chargers receivers who were larger and had more range. The Chargers only attempted 90 play-action shots but on those rivers completed 74% of his passes and had a 113.2 QB rating so expect the Colts to utilize their strong run game to play-action and open up intermediate and deep windows that Rivers can take advantage of despite his previous avoidance of them.

Based on the way things have shifted from when Reich was with Rivers in San Diego to his time in Indianapolis now, he clearly tweaks and adjusts his offense to fit the quarterback he has behind center. Noted by Reich this offseason was that they needed to get more chunk plays off play-action and emphasize concepts and plays where there are higher-percentage throws. Rivers absolutely helps with both of those and can keep the ball moving underneath with his love of running backs out of the backfield, rhythm throws on slants and curls, and some intermediate anticipation throws that can develop on play-action like deep crossers and comebacks. I’m not sure he’ll be able to use TY Hilton’s speed to it’s fullest capabilities and I worry a bit about the deep ball but with such a strong run game and Rivers knowledge and experience and Reich’s ability to tweak the system to match personnel, the Colts may be just fine attacking underneath and in intermediate zones off play-action to sustain the offense instead of having big explosive plays and long touchdowns. Rivers isn’t the quarterback he used to be, but he absolutely should raise the level of play in Indianapolis and give the Colts a chance to win the AFC South.

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NFL Film Breakdown: Kyler Murray’s Rookie Season and What his Future Holds

A year after taking Josh Rosen in 2018 with the 10th overall pick, the Cardinals went and grabbed Kyler Murray with the 1st pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Let’s take a look at the film and see how Murray did during his rookie season while leading the Cardinals to a 5-10-1 record under first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

            A few other things jump out when looking at his stats that also end up being backed up by the film. When the Cardinals went no huddle, he completed 70.26% of his passes (61.1% while huddling), had a 96.0 QB rating (82.6 while huddling), had 8.0 yards per pass attempt (6.2 while huddling), and while running the no huddle 35.9% of the time, it accounted for 41.7% of his yards. A similar trend can be found when he is in shotgun versus under center. His completion percentage is 66.6% versus 41.67%, rating is 89.5 versus 66.4, and yards per attempt is 7.0 versus 5.9. When running RPO concepts he also had consistently better numbers than he did on pure drop backs.

 No HuddleHuddle
Completion %70.26%61.1%
QB Rating96.082.6
Yards / Attempt8.06.2
Kyler Murray’s stats when running no huddle vs. huddle
 ShotgunUnder Center
Completion %66.6%41.67%
QB Rating89.566.4
Yards / Attempt7.05.9
Kyler Murray’s stats when in shotgun versus under center
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

None of this is super surprising given the offense he ran at Oklahoma that had him in shotgun, running RPOs, and pushing the tempo. Of concern though, is his ability to be decisive, process NFL reads, and limit the sack numbers when he isn’t running a no huddle offense. A consequence of going no huddle is that the plays become simpler – which can be great for a rookie quarterback used to making basic defender key reads, but can also be easier for defenses to guard against since the play selection, formations, and tendencies are much more specific and easy to identify.

            While Murray has definitely shown flashes, he has a bit of a climb to ascend into a top tier quarterback. The Cardinals offensive line struggled but Murray also routinely had trouble with blitzes and would frequently hold onto the ball too long waiting to see something open instead of throwing with anticipation. When he would throw on rhythm, however, he looked like an entirely different quarterback. Let’s dive in and see some of the potential that Kyler Murray has before checking out some of his mechanical issues and his problems holding onto the ball and being indecisive.

            The Cardinals ran a lot of empty sets which puts a strain on their offensive line, and forces Kyler to make quick, decisive reads. Here they have a simple slant flat concept where he read the flat defender and throws based off of his movement. The Browns appear to be in cover 4 here with each defensive back taking a quarter of the field deep. That leaves the outside linebackers to cover the flats. Kyler keys the outside linebacker to the top of the screen. As the linebacker goes to the flat route, that opens up a window behind him for the slant and Murray makes a decisive throw for a nice gain.

Here’s another simple read out of an empty formation. To the three receiver side, they have a hook, flat, fade combination going on. It’s the same basic concept as the slant flat where you can key the flat defender and throw off of him. Here, #20 sits and doesn’t come down to the hook and Murray throws on rhythm for an easy completion. Backside, they’re setting up a delayed screen if Murray doesn’t like the look to the bottom of the screen.

Here is Kyler recognizing man coverage to the bottom of the screen, quickly holding the safety with his eyes, and then throwing a great ball without hesitation to #14 who wins his route.

When Kyler only has to read one or two things, he can throw with anticipation and accuracy. He gets in trouble when he has to process a lot of things at once which can lead to his sacks and interception issues. Here he is getting off of his first read and throwing on time, with power, and with anticipation for a nice gain on a comeback to the sideline.

These simple reads translate really well to RPO concepts where Murray can make quick decisions based on one or two key defenders and make decisive throws. It fits his current skillset perfectly, protects the offensive line, opens up lanes in the run game for the zone read, and gets the ball in playmakers’ hands. Here the Cardinals run a simple orbit motion behind the QB into a bubble route. Murray is looking at the inside linebacker and playside safety. As soon as he sees that they don’t bump over, it makes it an easy decision to throw the bubble as the Cardinals have the Steelers outnumbered on that side of the field. The throw is low and minimizes the opportunity to get yards after the catch, but we’ll talk about his mechanics issues shortly.

Here’s another RPO that is the same concept just with two receivers. Larry Fitzgerald runs the bubble and the outside receiver blocks the man lined up over top of him. Murray is keying the outside linebacker highlighted in the gif. As he stays and feeds towards the run, Murray pulls the ball and delivers it to Fitzgerald for an easy nine yard gain.

Now that the good stuff is out of the way, let’s check out some of his mechanical issues, penchant for taking sacks, and his problems processing NFL defenses. He will often over rotate his hips, have a base that is too wide or tight, dip his shoulders, or fall away from his throws. This causes a lot of horizontal inaccuracy with the hip rotation and a lot of vertical inaccuracy with his lack of follow through and his shoulder dip.

            On this play you can see Kyler falling away and over rotating on his throw which causes the ball to sail to the right out of bounds when his receiver had half a step downfield on the DB. Ideally this ball is put out in front or with some arc to allow the receiver to run underneath the throw or win the jump ball. You can see as Murray is finishing his throw that he is already leaning and falling backwards. Yes there is a defender coming up on him, but he has space to make the throw and this is a recurring issue for him.

Here’s another case where Murray finishes his throw off balance which causes the ball to be flat and lose power before it gets to the receiver, eliminating any chance for a catch and run. The ball goes where your body tells it to go and here Murray’s body is telling it to go flat and low as he’s falling away.

Here, the opposite issue comes up as he lacks follow through and full hip rotation. He over-extends on his base (his front foot is too far forwards) and this causes him to be unable to generate power and accuracy because he cannot get his hips around. Ideally your belly button is pointing where you want the ball to end up and here Kyler ends up short of his aiming point and just like the last clip, the ball goes where his body tells it to – behind the receiver and into the arms of the defense. You can try this yourself. Get in a wide stance and try to bring your hips and belly button to point to the other side of your front knee. Now shorten your stance to a little bit wide than your shoulders and try to do the same. You should have a much wider angle of hip rotation available to you which helps steer the ball and generate power.

Another big issue with Murray’s game is bailing from clean pockets with receivers open and time to make the throw. Then, when he escapes the pocket, he also tends to bring his eyes down and focus on check downs right in front or search for a running lane. Here he has Kirk #13 breaking open on a deep out but bails from the pocket instead of standing in and delivering the throw. As he rolls out, he has Kirk still working open and coming back to him towards the sideline but Murray is locked in on receivers underneath and signaling at Kenyon Drake in the flats. If scrambling and getting outside of the pocket on broken plays is going to be Murray’s thing, he has to do a better job of lifting his eyes up and seeing the whole field.

Remember the quick hitch from earlier that Murray threw on time? Here’s the exact same play with the exact same read and Murray misses it this time.  He looks to Fitzgerald first but you can see that he looks directly at the hook and doesn’t throw it afterwards. This is a common issue for him. If his first read isn’t there, his instinct is to get out of the pocket and scramble or hold onto the ball for far too long. This is a huge contributor to his sack numbers.

You can see here Murray’s instinct to run first. As soon as he feels pressure or sees a hole to scramble through, he takes it – often leaving big plays on the field in the passing game as longer developing routes are just opening up as he takes off. You can see highlighted at the bottom of the screen the dig route coming open towards the middle of the field.

Here is one last example of Murray’s shallow eyes leaving a big play on the field. Here he escapes the pocket after his first read and hits a hitch for a short gain, which is fine, but there’s also a receiver wide open within his field of view in the end zone.

Defenses haven’t been throwing anything wildly exotic at him as far as pass coverage goes. He does have trouble with the blitz but the biggest issues right now are his indecision on pure drop backs, full field reads, and his inconsistent mechanics. Not something you’d want from a first overall pick at quarterback. When you combine all of those things, you get a guy who was sacked 48 times, misses open receivers on scoring plays when they’re open, and leaves a lot of yards and points on the board. Kingsbury’s offense certainly didn’t help his cause either. While there were some concepts that made it easy for Murray, a lot of it struck me as uninventive and it really struggled to scheme guys open to give Kyler some easy throws on a consistent basis. A ton of stuff was short and emphasized their receivers winning on isolated routes versus the defender in front of them, and when Kyler didn’t throw on time, it essentially wasted the play. All that being said, the raw talent is there. Murray has the arm to make all the throws, can be dynamic in the run game, and when he has a simplified, fast offense that helps him accelerate his decisions, he can be an exceptional quarterback.

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NFL Film Breakdown: Drew Lock’s Wild Ride

            Drew Lock brought life to a 3-8 Broncos team that was struggling on offense and looked dead in the water. Lock went 4-1 as the starter, threw for 1,020 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions with a 64.1% completion percentage. While he does have a huge arm, Lock also struggled with accuracy with only 73% of his throws being on target. Despite the lack of consistent accuracy, Lock certainly showed signs of supreme talent and arm strength. He could consistently fit balls into tight windows, throw off platform, and could get away with bad mechanics because of his arm talent. The talent gives him a shot, but there is a ton of things he needs to clean up. Let’s take a look at how Drew Lock finished the season and his prospects at being an NFL starter for the Denver Broncos.

DENVER, CO – DECEMBER 22: Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) runs the ball during the third quarter of the game on Sunday, December 22, 2019 at Empower Field at Mile High. The Denver Broncos hosted the Detroit Lions for the game. (Photo by Eric Lutzens/The Denver Post)

            When watching Lock, there’s a few big things that jump out. First, as mentioned above, is his arm talent. He can make absolutely any throw you ask of him and shows the ability to add touch and take heat off of the ball. However, everything else is a concern. He’s uncomfortable in the pocket, drifts into pressure, has inconsistent footwork and drop technique, tends to hold the ball, is slow on his reads, and has wildly inconsistent accuracy as a result.

            We’ll start with some of Lock’s most impressive throws. Arm strength and talent can really be seen when a quarterback is running or rolling out to their left. It forces them to get their hips back around, close their shoulder to the receiver, and throw the ball accurately while moving laterally. Here you can see just that even if some of these fundamentals aren’t there. He doesn’t close his shoulder to the throw but has good hip whip and great arm strength to put the ball on target.

            Here again is another great example of bad mechanics and fundamentals, but a great arm. Lock is backpedaling into his drop just like Aaron Rodgers tends to do and is also drifting right into pressure. He walks himself into the left tackle and makes the throw much harder for himself. He also stares down the receiver the entire time and doesn’t get his feet set. All that being said, he still is able to throw an absolutely perfect ball before the safety closes on it for a huge gain.

            Lock also has a penchant for making plays happen on scrambles. He has decent enough athleticism to escape the pocket and make teams pay on the ground but he can also throw at awkward angles, is able to throw with pressure in his face, and does a solid job of keeping his eyes up when scrambling.

            He’s even shown good anticipation on routes by throwing before receivers have even made their break. Though he’s wildly inconsistent, he has at least displayed that he is capable of quickly reading a defense, the leverage of the defender, and throwing a ball that is almost impossible to defend against.

            But for every throw he makes like the one above, he’ll look at that same exact concept and decide not to throw it.

            As mentioned before, he also has a tendency to stare down receivers or stay on them for way too long. Combined with his accuracy issues, this can cause sacks, passes to be broken up and intercepted, and lead to hospital balls where he’s putting his receivers in a spot to get hurt.

            You can see the most egregious case below where he’s looking to his right the entire way, double clutches, and then throws the ball anyways as the safety reads his eyes the entire way for the interception.

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            Everything is just a beat late with Lock. Even when he sees someone open, it can take him an extra tick to process and get the ball out. You can see in the plays below that he’s registering and staring down receivers that are open, but holding the ball for an extra hitch or patting the ball before throwing.

            He can also tend to show a lack of understanding of where defenders are or are going to be and got away with a number of lucky throws throughout the season that really should have been interceptions. Flat defenders routinely drop under deeper routes and give him issues.

            So now he’s got issues holding onto the ball, issues missing defenders dropping under his routes, will stare down receivers, and can be slow to process. In a vacuum, any of these things alone can be fixable, but the problems continue for Lock. His accuracy is a huge issue and crops up in every game he plays. While he has supreme arm talent, his pocket movement and foot mechanics ultimately make him a wildly inconsistent thrower of the ball which is not sustainable throughout the course of a season. Below you can see a perfectly clean pocket but Lock backpedals at the top of his throw which causes him to throw falling away and forces the ball to die on him, eliminating the potential for yards after the catch for a wide open receiver.

            Even when he’s throwing in rhythm, he can have trouble driving off his back foot and following through. A lot of the time he ends up falling away and relying on pure arm for ball placement. Here he puts the ball on the back hip of the receiver running a slant. If that’s out in front it’s likely a touchdown.

            His panic in the pocket also takes him off of reads that come open and forces him to check the ball down. He struggles to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball consistently. Once he’s moving around and outside the pocket, he has no trouble dealing with pressure but often feels ghosts around him when trying to stay inside the tackles. Below the Raiders are running Tampa 2 or a variation of Cover 4 and the Broncos have a great play dialed up for it. With the middle linebacker sinking deep under the post, this leaves a big hole for the dig underneath him. Lock, however, immediately tries to bail from the pocket and doesn’t stand in and deliver to the dig as it is breaking open underneath the middle linebacker.

            The last gif here shows it all. Lock is nervous in the pocket, stares down an open receiver, doesn’t throw it, escapes and then throws an inaccurate ball to the sideline.

            Does Drew Lock have the talent to succeed in the NFL? Absolutely. But he is extremely raw and inconsistent in his footwork, delivery of the ball, pocket presence, and ability to read defenses. While he’s only started five NFL games, I would not be at all surprised to see the Broncos go with a different quarterback at the start of the 2020 season and if he does start, I’d expect to see some super high variability from him week-to-week with interception numbers in the high teens. That doesn’t seem like the type of quarterback that would fit a team run by Vic Fangio who would hope to rely on good defense and consistent if not flashy offense that doesn’t lose them games. Lock is a guy who would benefit having a veteran backup like Flacco or even learning behind a stop-gap that can help him along while he develops.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe here and let us know what you think. Make sure to follow us o If you liked this post make sure to subscribe here and let us know what you think. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen. If you feel like donating to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here.

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NFL Film Breakdown: What’s Going On with Aaron Rodgers?

Despite an NFC Championship appearance and a 13-3 regular season record, the 2019 Packers were largely dismissed. The feeling was that Aaron Rodgers wasn’t his old self and as a result, the offense was struggling despite having perhaps the best run game in the Aaron Rodgers era. Was it his unfamiliarity with LaFleur’s new system? Was he aging? Was there a lack of receiving options? Let’s take a look and see if Aaron Rodgers’ demise is for real or if the offense and Rodgers will improve in year two of the Matt LaFleur regime.

            Rodgers had 4,002 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, and just 4 interceptions on the year. When combing through his stats, perhaps the numbers most indicative of Rodgers facing all the issues listed above is the amount of plays in which he held the ball for 2.5 seconds or longer. A constant issue for Rodgers during his career is taking unnecessary sacks and holding the ball too long. When it develops into a scramble drill for a play, it’s great, but when it doesn’t, it puts the offense in a big hole and way behind the chains. On 51% of his passing attempts, Aaron Rodgers held the ball for more than 2.5 seconds. On these plays his passing completion dropped from 71.79% to just 52.60%. He also, as one may predict, sustained the bulk of his sacks when he held the ball longer than 2.5 seconds. Clearly, when Rodgers throws in rhythm, he can be incredibly effective.

Quinn Harris/Getty Images

            However, even on designed quick passes, Rodgers had a particularly difficult time throwing to boundary when going to his left and would routinely throw to the back hip or behind the receiver, limiting their ability to gain yards after the catch. He was also hesitant on some pretty simple flat defender reads, especially on double slant concepts. While Rodgers has made a career of throwing off platform and has gotten away with it because of his unreal arm talent, it has started to make him a little less consistent especially on deep balls. All that being said, he can absolutely make all the throws still. Arm strength and accuracy are still there and he is incredibly good at moving defenses with his eyes and manipulating defenders to open up windows. When he can set his feet, his deep ball is one of the best in the league and as he becomes more accustomed to the reads, timing, and rhythm throws of the new offense, I’d expect to see the ball get out of his hands faster. The time where he can throw off platform consistently and effectively may be coming to an end but there’s no denying he still has all of the tools necessary to play at and MVP level.

            Let’s start with putting one thing to bed. Aaron Rodgers still has it. As mentioned before, Aaron Rodgers’ ability to move defenses with his eyes and create space for his receivers is next level. Here he looks off the safety #29 in the middle of the field on a 2 high safety robber look from the 49ers. #20 robs the middle of the field and doesn’t actually have responsibility for a deep zone here. #29 Jaquiski Tartt rotates back to the middle of the field but is held with Rodgers’ eyes while he looks to the left. You can see below how Aaron peeks to the left to see what #20 Jimmy Ward is doing. If the 49ers were actually in cover 2 here like they’re showing, the ball needs to come out relatively quickly to the dig route across the middle before he enters into the flat defenders zone. As soon as he sees Ward flat footed and sitting on the middle field route, he quickly moves his eyes to the backside to influence the safety, before launching the ball 50 yards in the air to Davante Adams. You may also notice the difficulty of the other receivers, Geronimo Allison and Allen Lazard, to get any separation or create space for themselves.

            Again here you can see Rodgers’ look off to the top of the field, moving the safety just a few yards and opening up space to put a little more air on the ball to Davante Adams down the sideline.

            Rodgers is also unreal when running to his left. He is able to create an incredible amount of torque with his hips and because of his penchant for throwing off platform, he’s able to generate power without getting his feet totally set.

            You can see that the arm talent is clearly still there. We’ll go into the inconsistencies of his mechanics in a moment, but when Rodger is on, he can make absolutely any throw.

            Part of getting Rodgers in a groove and at his best is finding ways to get him in rhythm and throwing on time. His ball placement when he has all of his cleats in the ground, can get his feet set, and can step into throws can be absolutely lethal. When he can take his first read or hitch and find his second, he’s incredibly more accurate and efficient with his throwing motion. Part of this is having good play design early and part of it is Rodgers understanding the timing, trusting his receivers to be where they need to be. As a result, a lot of the throws Rodgers makes on rhythm tend to be to receivers he trusts – mainly Davante Adams with a little bit of Geronimo Allison and Allen Lazard mixed in. You can see particularly in the last gif how almost every receiver, including Davante, isn’t get a whole lot of separation with the Lions running man coverage – this is a common theme when the Packers encountered man defense.

            Even if they’re schemed up or he’s given simple reads though, he can tend to hold onto the ball. He’s especially had trouble the last few games of the year with double slant concepts against two high safeties. When given a two high look, the read is to check the playside linebacker or slot defender. If he drops under the first slant from the #2 slot receiver, the window is open on the second slant. If the linebacker gets more depth and out to the outside slant, you throw the inside slant. Here you can see the linebacker, while showing blitz, drops under the first slant from the slot receiver #81. As a result, this leaves Davante Adams outside wide open – especially with a corner who is bailing at the snap. Aaron is looking right at it and decides not to throw it, eventually scrambling and throwing the ball away.

            Here again is this same concept with double slants at the top of the screen. The slot defender stays with the inside slant, and the #1 receiver is open on rhythm. Aaron holds it and takes a sack.

            A super simple variation of the double slant is the slant / flat. This is better versus cover 3 and a one high safety. The defender key is the flat defender. If the flat (in this case the defender over the slot receiver) defender flies to the flats, it opens a window for the slant right behind him. Again Rodgers looks right at it, and doesn’t throw on rhythm to an open Davante Adams.

            Same concept but this time he throws the flat without reading the defender at all. As soon as that defender flows, he needs to hit the slant sit right behind him for a first down to Jimmy Graham. Yes, you’d like it and expect your running back to be able to make someone miss in the open field and get 3 yards here, but the lack of read and the pre-snap decision to throw to an area of the field where you’re outnumbered by the defense 3 to 2 isn’t a good one.

            While drop footwork are largely all preference and is different for each quarterback, Aaron’s drop isn’t doing him any favors. A good amount of the time, he does a backpedal drop. While this is great for seeing the field throughout the drop, it also makes it more difficult to close your shoulder to the throw and to get your hips and feet set. As someone that already throws off platform and tends not to set his feet when he throws, this kind of drop can exacerbate that issue. Here’s an example of just that on a miss behind Davante Adams on a quick out. You may love the choice to throw to Adams, but if you look at the bottom of the screen, LaFleur has the perfect play on to exploit the 49ers man coverage with a simple rub route and Allen Lazard wide open.

            These might not seem like much but when it’s in the open field, back hip throws like this towards the sideline can reduce the ability for the receiver to run in stride and get yards after the catch and also gives defenders an opportunity to jump the route for an interception. Here he is again throwing to his left and throwing behind the receivers on a quick outs using his backpedal drop and throwing off balance and off platform.

            These same accuracy issues crop up on deep balls as well. While there is certainly PI on this play, this ball is also way out of bounds and uncatchable. Aaron has plenty of time to set his feet and deliver despite an unblocked man.

            Rodgers has the arm talent to make these throws and mechanics and footwork aren’t always necessary, they just help you be a more consistent thrower of the ball. When the momentum, platform, and throwing level are changing from throw to throw, it makes it incredibly difficult to routinely hit throws in the same area every time.

            So is Aaron Rodgers done? Not by a long shot. Has he regressed and become more inconsistent? Yes. Aaron Rodgers is missing throws that we aren’t used to seeing him miss and while his footwork and mechanics have never truly been conventional, they may now be impacting his consistency. When facing pure man coverage, almost every Packers receiver outside of Davante Adams struggled to consistently create separation without the aid of play design. Combined with a new offense, new timing, and his penchant for holding the ball to eliminate turnovers, and you have what feels like a totally different player when you watch him on TV. He clearly still has the tools and with a small cleanup of his fundamentals, another year in the system, a piece or two outside to give him weapons that he trusts, Aaron will be right back in the MVP conversation and the Packers will be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs until he decides to hang it up.

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Rookie to the Rescue? Film Analysis of Eagles RB Miles Sanders

The Eagles have been in must-win games for the last month, their season is hanging in the balance, and a rookie running back has come to save them. Miles Sanders has racked up 246 rushing yards, 151 receiving yards, three touchdowns, and has touched the ball 69 times for the Eagles in the last three games. None more important than their 17-9 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Over that span he has accounted for 31.4% of the Eagles yards, 50% of their total touchdowns, and 23.3% of their total points. He’s by no means a polished back at this point but let’s check out Miles Sanders and where he’s effective, struggles, and why he has a chance to give a spark to an Eagles offense that is looking to upset someone in the playoffs.

While Sanders is still a rookie and is making some rookie mistakes, there’s a lot to love about him and his ability to make people miss in small spaces. His 3-cone drill at the combine was #1 for running backs at 6.89 seconds and while his 40 was middle of the pack at 4.49, he certainly has the speed to gash defenses when he gets a crease. His athletic abilities are most impactful when gets the ball in space on swings out of the backfield, screen passes, or on outside zone plays where he can read outside-in. He also does an exceptional job with draw plays and anything that gets him on the edge. That being said, he has a really difficult time reading inside zone, double-team blocks, and setting up his blocks to create space. The Eagles don’t ask him to pass protect much and he can lacks aggressiveness and toughness in meeting a LB at the line of scrimmage which results in him being pushed into the QBs lap but he gets the job done more often than not. The Eagles run game isn’t very diverse which limits Sanders in some ways. There is almost no power or pin and pull concepts and they rely almost exclusively on zone running game.

We’ll start off with his problems and inconsistency reading inside zone, being patient, and reading flowing linebackers. Inside zone is a run play that emphasizes double teams with two offensive linemen double-teaming a defensive lineman before one moves off and climbs to get to a linebacker. This theoretically creates push at the line of scrimmage while also allowing linemen to get onto the second-level defenders. The running back has the option of staying playside on the dive (solid arrow), reading off the flowing linebackers for the cutback underneath the backside double team (dotted arrow), or bouncing (white arrow). By pressing the dive, in this case, off the left guard’s (#77) left hip, the linebacker #47 is forced to read the direction of Sanders. This gives time for the double team to work up to him and for the center #62 to get onto him for a block. Sanders reads that the playside dive is unavailable with the strong safety #20 coming in to fill and takes the cutback line for a positive gain.

Solid blue = original dive track, Dotted blue = cutback, Dotted white = bounce, Yellow = initial blocks, Orange = climbing off double team blocks

This is exactly how you’re supposed to run inside zone. It forces the linebackers to flow and think, your linemen get push up to the linebackers on the double teams, and the running back patiently takes what’s available to them. Unfortunately, Sanders does this with wild infrequency. For every time he makes the right read, he will look to bounce outside and get tackled for a loss or no gain. 

Here’s an example of Sanders working the same concept, but trying to bounce it outside when both of his double teams are winning and have created 3 yards of push downfield. His first read, the dive, is there but he lacks the discipline and patience to take the positive yardage in front of him.

Here is another case of Sanders going for the cutback instead of working playside and getting tackled for a loss. Kelce #62 and the left guard #73 have hooked and climbed to the linebackers on the playside to the left. Instead of pushing that hole, Sanders immediately looks to cutback instead of going for the dive.

Blue = correct read of double team, Red = actual track taken by Sanders

Here is another example of Sanders trying to bounce and lacking patience with the double teams on inside zone.

While watching Miles Sanders work the inside zone can be frustrating, when he hits it, he has exceptional burst in the open field. Where he really excels is on outside zone and stretch plays. Instead of reading inside out like on inside zone, outside zone emphasizes pushing to the outside as much as possible until each sequential gap is sealed by the defense. It can force the defense to over-pursue to the outside and opens up lanes underneath. The difference is night and day for Sanders who becomes way more decisive, explosive, and dangerous with his lateral quickness and ability to plant and get north and south.

You can see in the gif below how when #53 seals the outside on defense, Sanders cuts up underneath. He then progresses to the next block, where #47 again has outside leverage. Sanders once again cuts up underneath and falls forward for a seven yard gain. The outside zone stresses the defense and forces them to pursue to seal the outside which can open up lanes on the cutbacks underneath. Sanders continually excels at these plant and go concepts that utilize his lateral quickness and allow him to see the field while in space on the fringes of the field.

Giving Sanders space and creating an “open field” environment is what he thrives on. On inside runs when things are condensed and he can’t see the field, he tends to make poor decisions and has a tendency to try and bounce outside where he’d then be able to work the open field. You can see even on this outside zone play when he takes the track of running outside and it’s quickly sealed off, he’s much more powerful and decisive cutting up and towards the teeth of the defense than he is on inside zone plays.

Again , despite a poor initial aiming point, he is much more decisive and explosive off the outside zone blocking scheme with the offensive line stretching to the right while double teaming up to the linebackers — helping Sanders get outside and to the edge of the defense.

To utilize him in space, the Eagles love to run screens with him. They usually run a guard and center two man screen that gets Sanders out near the sideline with blockers in front of him where he can see the field and gash defenses.

Kelce #62 is an absolute monster in the open field. There’s not many centers that are even close to being as athletic as he is and that are able to get on small and shifty defensive backs. He’s exceptional on reach blocks for outside zone as well and he perfectly suits the skill sets of Miles Sanders. Sanders is great at reading blocks in space that are more lateral in nature. That’s why he excels both at outside zone and in screens, swing passes, and quick pitches. He can struggle taking the right initial track but as he gets more experienced, that should buff out.

On their screen versus Dallas, they ran a play-action before leaking Sanders into the flat. Instead of having Sanders pass pro, the Eagles will play-action him into the flats a lot to use him as a hot read for blitz pickup instead of having him meet a linebacker at the line of scrimmage in a scan protection on normal drop-backs. This way, you avoid putting a rookie running back who is still developing in blitz pickup in harm’s way and also get one of your best players in space out into the flats. Against Dallas, they use this and leak out both guards and their center to screen for Sanders off the play-action. Sanders does a great job reading in the open field and picks up 26 yards.

While Sanders definitely has some aspects to his game that need to be polished and worked on, he is an exceptional weapon in the open field and on outside runs. Used the right way, he can be a huge weapon for the Eagles as they attempt to write another Cinderella story and make a playoff run. With his ability to read pin and pull blocks, outside zone, and be effective in the screen game, he can damage a defense in multiple ways. The true test is whether he can become more decisive in the inside run game and gain the tough yards that the Eagles will need to be true contenders.

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